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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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January 27, 2008 3:57 PM

Growing disillusionment in Washington's wheat fields

Posted by David Postman

IN GARFIELD COUNTY - Mary Dye told me it’d be easy to find the farmhouse where her family lives. Go through Pomeroy, population 1,520, through Pataha, population one Gypsy Java stand; turn right after the dinosaur sculpture made from old sickle blades, and start climbing miles up into the Blue Mountains. And don’t forget to turn at the shrub at the top and look for the big, red barn.

This spot in the southeast corner of the state is the smallest county in Washington. There are about 2,400 people here, though that number has been on the decline. Driving in from Tri-Cities, I was struck by the scenery and the odd weather pattern that dusted the hills with snow on one side of the road but left those on the other side bare and brown. I had to slow on a bridge when a group of buzzards were reluctant to leave their animal carcass feast behind.


On the back road to Garfield County.

I drove two and a half hours yesterday to see Mary and Roger Dye because their names popped up in my research. In 2000 they attended a Save the Dams Rally in Tri-Cities that was promoted in part by the Republican Party to boost Republican turnout and George W. Bush. (In Garfield County Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by a 3-1 margin.) I wanted to see how engaged Republican voters were feeling about the GOP slate of presidential candidates. So I telephoned, and Mary Dye invited me out.

Forget what you imagine about rolling wheat fields. This farm country has a top-of-the-world look to it. This is mountain, or at least high-hill, farming where special steep-slope combines are needed to harvest the crop.

In the Blue Mountains.

I remembered that at about this point in the 2000 campaign John McCain took some heat for not being sufficiently clear about his position on what then was a major debate: Whether to tear down dams on the Snake River to help the salmon.

I asked the Dyes whether they held hard feeling toward McCain over that issue. They didn’t recall the specific instance, but boy, they sure don’t like McCain today.

“He’s a press hound,” Roger told me. Roger, 54, is the quieter of the two Dyes. And if he has a bit of the laconic farmer to him, Mary has the passion and energy of a political activist.

Here’s Mary on McCain:

“He’s all about John McCain. He’s attractive to the media because he’s a maverick and you guys are always looking for an angle, something different, something new. … But his core principals are untrustworthy.”

She says he finds McCain “the most disingenuous candidate in there.”

In either party? This stumps Mary for a moment because it quickly becomes clear she doesn’t want to say anything nice about Hillary Clinton. But it’s only a moment’s hesitation.

“If you put him in a dress he’d look just like Hillary.”

What about Ron Paul, the only candidate with any campaign signs they’ve seen in the county? Nope, he’s an anti-government nut.

The Dyes have nothing bad to say about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but they definitely don’t feel the excitement. Mary sees former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as self-destructing in the next few weeks.

“Just in the last week I’d say I’m leaning toward Romney,” Mary says. She’s impressed with his management of the Salt Lake City Olympics. Roger likes Romney, too, and he’s bothered by those who say Romney can’t win because he's Mormon.

But there’s little chance the Dyes will be as active in the campaign as they were in 2000, the last time the White House was open. These are no longer the energetic Republican backers who in 2000 spent $3,000 of their own money to make a batch of 4-by-8-foot "Save Our Dams" signs that urged people to vote Republican. You won’t see them at a rally this year, or maybe even at the Republican caucus Feb. 9. Where Mary had “a totally intense feeling” about the campaign in 2000, today there is a palpable sense of disillusionment.

She says:

“In 2000 I was enjoying a sense that the ordinary guy would have a say in the system.”

The loss of that feeling began with a decline in world wheat prices. It was as bad as it had been since the 1980s. Agricultural exports were particularly hard hit by the recession that descended after 9/11. Along with other economic factors, exports suffered from political fall-out, too. As Mary said, “You got a sense that American-made was no longer desirable.”

Prior to the first Gulf War, and the first President Bush, Iraq was the United States’ best customer for wheat. Australia then moved into the Iraq market. American farmers thought they might regain some market share in November 2003, when then-Agriculture Secreary Ann Veneman said of Iraq:

"The United States will aggressively pursue that market as the economy becomes more stabilized."

But Australia was able to keep the business when the Iraqi Grain Board chose it over American wheat. U.S. farmers complained and alleged that Australian farmers had been paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s government as part of the oil-for-food program.

The Dyes wanted to see the Bush administration fight back against Australia.

“The administration made the decision not to make a fuss over it,” Mary said. “Australia was our ally in the war.”

She thinks the war has been mishandled. Not in the way politicians talk about the occupation or strategic military decisions or complaints about misinformation in the run-up to the war. She says Bush was right to attack Iraq, that Saddam was the right target and she nothing she’s learned since would change her mind. She adds, “I’m probably the only human who would still say that in front of a reporter.”

Mary says that America “should be reaping the benefits of the Iraqi oil to pay back our costs” and that U.S. farmers, not those in Australia, should be first in line to sell wheat in post-war Iraq.

Roger and Mary Dye and the eldest of three daughters, Emilie.

Roger says that not only did exports lag because of the war, the fighting took all the Bush administration’s attention.

Meanwhile the Dyes sold off their life insurance policies, reduced their health insurance to a bare minimum, and put their kids on the state's Basic Health Plan. And they all scrimped. When there was a bit of milk left in the bottom of a glass, it got poured back into the carton for another day. Mary said:

“In large part, there’s something really awful to me about a man who has been farming since 1978, now in his mid-50s, having to struggle like this.”

That’s her husband she’s talking about.

As two university-trained agronomists, the Dyes know a lot about the science of farming. They thought they knew something about politics, too. Bush campaigned, as most politicians do, as a supporter of family farms. But once he was in office, the Dyes say it became impossible to have any communication, much less meaningful input, with the administration. Mary said:

“I felt really helpless. You couldn’t touch the Bush administration. You couldn’t reach them. The rank and file grower had no input in the process with this administration.”

Mary became particularly discouraged during Ann Veneman’s term as secretary of agriculture.

“That was supposed to be the best thing for ag. And I ended up screaming at her on CNN and throwing vegetables at the TV.”

The feelings run deep. When she heard that former Veneman deputy J.B. Penn was leaving to take a job with John Deere & Co., she said that if he’s a “John Deere man” she was glad her family only used tractors and equipment from International Harvester.


“They just replaced the heads but didn’t go down any further. There was no real change.”

Mary stayed involved in politics up until mid-2004. She was a Bush supporter and leading the Washington state effort to draft that year’s party platform. Then as her family and friends struggled she no longer wanted to be part of the system that had once energized her.

She quit the campaign and all the party business. She didn’t tell anyone why and everyone was apparently too polite to ask.

“George Bush has betrayed me personally. … I just definitely thought he understood.”

There’s been some recent good news. Wheat prices had an unusual spike last year. Many farmers didn’t benefit much from that because the spike came late and their wheat had been pre-sold at lower prices. But the Dyes were able to do well and the financial pressures have lessened this year.

There’s some creativity that comes with their new-found political disillusionment, or perhaps liberation. Where Mary used to read the paper for political news, mostly to get agitated at, she know looks for creative ways to make the farm run more efficiently.

They are the first farmers in the county to use a herd of sheep to “eat off the stubble” of the harvested crop. A herder brings in 1,500 sheep to do the work that once took miles of tractor work and expensive chemicals.

They even sold off their combine. In farm country the type of harvester you have is as much a status sign as having the right car for upscale city dwellers. Instead of owning, they now rent one when they need it and don’t have to pay the mortgage on the huge equipment. As Mary said, “We no longer have to borrow with old iron as collateral.”

It’s Mary who harvests the wheat. She says the International Harvester 2588 she used went six miles an hour, had all the creature comforts and was guided by state-of-the-art GPS navigation.

And it can pop a wheelie. Mary knows because she did it last season.

The Dyes will definitely vote this November. But they're as skeptical now as they were excited eight years ago. They look forward to better times for farmers and hope they can continue to work themselves out of debt and out of disillusionment.

“Next year is everyone’s hope,” Roger said.

I didn’t ask, but I’m sure they’ve said that before.

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Posted by d

11:23 PM, Jan 27, 2008

I don't know what they were, but they weren't buzzards :)
The Dam(n) issue is a red herring used by our locals to frighten the uninformed. No credible state wide candidate has ever supported breaching. And credible science doesn't advocate that either. If you really want to kill a bunch of salmon and other river/sea life, just pop them open and dump all that silt down river.
They're right about support for agriculture, they just don't remember that Tom Foley was the last Congressman who actually did anything useful for this area. (I know :), George tried to open up sales to Cuba.)

Posted by g.narls

9:30 AM, Jan 28, 2008

Interesting how these folks are Republican voters but have their children enrolled in SCHIP "socialist" healthcare. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

Posted by Publicbulldog

11:10 AM, Jan 28, 2008

They should be growing industrial hemp.It is places like these that can eliminate greenhouse gases,and reducing our dependance on foreign oil.
Imagine what the economic picture would be like in little towns like this.Our money would go there instead of going to OPEC.

Posted by David Allen

12:04 PM, Jan 28, 2008

I hope these people wake up and realize that the GOP will shaft everyone to get their way. George Bush and Dick Cheney both should have been impeached and removed from office for lying us into a war of aggression against Iraq.

Posted by bobbyp

7:41 PM, Jan 28, 2008


This is a truly outstanding series. You have presented the thoughts of some of the much extolled, but much misrepresented 'common folks' with fairness and without imposing your own 'spin' regarding what you think they think.

As a sometime critic of your reporting, or lack thereof, I tip my hat and say, "Good work, sir".

Next stop Palouse?

Posted by Ha

8:41 PM, Jan 28, 2008

I hope people are reading your posts and realizing, "Never buy the spin. Never, ever buy the spin."

These people were had by listening to what people SAID, rather than by looking and extrapolating from their previous actions.

I don't know if the Dems are the right answer to their problems, or, if they need an enthusiastic, energetic, charismatic Republican, but I hope they get someone in their corner soon. I hope things turn out well for them.

Posted by JimD

11:26 PM, Jan 28, 2008

I whole-heatedly agree with bobbyp. I've turned several folks on to this series (on the blog). This is what good reporting - and excellent writing - is all about. Ever thought about a podcast?

Posted by Beavis

8:40 AM, Jan 29, 2008

Really enjoyed this series, keep up the good work.

Reading this entry its clear the Republicans are good at getting people to vote against their own interests. I don't know how they do it or why people buy into it, but it sure seems to happen.

Posted by Piper Scott

9:50 AM, Jan 29, 2008

Wow! If nothing else, this series of Road Show threads exposes both the contempt of west-of-the-mountains liberals for Inland Empire folks and their own hubris and willingness to ignore the left's own record.

Breach the dams? The Seattle City Council was the poster child for that effort with the adoring support of urban liberals who could care less about farmers or agriculture.

Values? West side liberals openly scoff at the conservative family values held by east-of-the-mountains voters.

Even turning the concerns of the folks with whom Postman is talking into another knee-jerk impeachmemnt debate shows the shallowness of liberal talking points. The comment by Beavis exemplifies the point: voting against their own interests? Who died and made him their keeper? Get real!

Liberals look down upon conservatives as lesser people. Conservatives merely think liberals are wrong. This series of threads evidences the truth of that thesis.

That there are issues of deep concern among farmers, small business owners, and rural Washingtonians is a given. That there's a legitimate debate to be had over agricultural policies - improved wheat sales as a spoil of war, for example - is also a given. But respect for the contribution of those on the east side shoudn't be also be a given, but it isn't here.

Here's a clue to developing perspective: without them, those of us on the west side and in other parts of the world don't eat. Without us, those on the east side don't have video games or gourmet coffee. To a very real degree, they deal in the essentials of life, while we dwell on the materialistic excesses of life all the while regarding them as so many serfs and peasants.

Tell me again how the Roman Empire fell? What was the attitude of Tsarist Russia's aristocracy toward the peasant class in the early 20th Century? How disconnected did the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire become from the disparate elements of his holdings?

There's considerably more at work here than a mere and shallow Republican/Democrat divide and whose bumper sticker gets slapped on the back of the Bronco. "Cognitive dissonance anyone?" is simply today's way of saying, "Let them eat cake!"

Enjoy your moment in the sun, liberals, but know that it will be transitory and that a day of reckoning will someday be at hand. In the meantime, you might try showing a little more respect to thinking and lifestyles different than your own.

The Piper

Posted by Eastsider

10:50 AM, Jan 29, 2008

From the eastside, may I say I'm glad you're here. It is clear that westside folks need to understand there is honor and integrity in producing primary substances, zinc, oil, or wheat. And eastside folks need to understand that we all contribute, through subsidies, in supporting the dams, and preserving that way of life. How much is it going to continue to cost me to keep these folks as rugged individualists? And republican or democrat, you can count on more money for fewer folks, and fewer opportunities for our kids. We need to look at ourselves and see how much we cost our other citizens, and what value we add for that. Our leadership choices are remarkably lame, and you can count they will continue to pander to rural farm price supports and timber subsidies, as well as urban transportation initiatives and direct subsidies and illegal contracts to defense contractors.

Thanks for coming, David. At least somebody is trying to view through the cascade curtain.

Posted by bobbyp

7:43 PM, Jan 29, 2008

"Conservatives merely think liberals are wrong."

Well, contrapoint, that's just wrong.

Conservatives think liberals are traitors.

You reap what you sow, Mr. Scott. Your bile and hate are the mark of a disturbed mind. By the way, how are things in bucholic Kirkland these days, oh great tribune of the downtrodden rural masses?

Posted by fazsha

8:16 PM, Jan 29, 2008

How far we've come. The Dyes don't even realize the irony of being Republicans. I'm sure they cheered when Reagan said "Government is not the answer to our problems. Government is the problem."

Now? They don't like Ron Paul because he's an anti-government nut. Some people never learn.

Posted by JimD

11:25 PM, Jan 29, 2008

This series is like a Rorschach ink blot test. Everyone finds justification for their political beliefs in David's road trip observations.
I've never understood the contempt. I don't understand why we aren't more curious about the perspective of others, and why we wouldn't want to willingly incorporate it into enhancing our understanding and neighborly cooperation.
Those who haven't been enlightened to the complexities of the dysfunction beyond the name calling, righteous anger and smug comfort of perceived superiority - on BOTH sides - should go back and re-read the series with an objective mind set, instead of focusing just on that which reinforce the beliefs they already have.

Posted by Cascadian

9:02 PM, Jan 30, 2008

"The Dam(n) issue is a red herring used by our locals to frighten the uninformed. No credible state wide candidate has ever supported breaching. And credible science doesn't advocate that either. If you really want to kill a bunch of salmon and other river/sea life, just pop them open and dump all that silt down river."

submitted by d


You're absolutely wrong on the science here. The consensus opinion among biologists and fisheries scientists is that partially removing (breaching) the 4 dams on the Lower Snake River would have a very beneficial effect on the salmon in that river. As time goes by it may be the only option.

You could have all the agriculture without those 4 dams that you now have with them. The rail system could be enhnced so that all of the grain on the Lower Snake could move by rail as it did prior to the last of the 4 dams being completed
in 1975. Only 1 of the 4 provides irrigation, this could be done with the dam gone and the river at its natural level by modifying the intake system. These 4 dams provide roughly 5 percent of the regional power supply. Building a few new windfarms in the region and/or employing additional conservation measures could easily address this. These particular dams do not provide flood control so no work needs to be done there.

You wouldn't simply pull the plug, so to speak, and just let all the silt go at once. That would be done in controlled stages, coordinated around the arrival of the various runs, as has been done on other projects of this type. We'll see an example of this one of these years over on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. That project is grinding along. Slade Gorton, in his dark day, threw every impediment he could at it, even after there was strong local support for it, because he believed the scientists. He was terrified of the positive precedent that this would set.

You are correct however, that the issue is used to scare rural voters. That's a real shame because all of the work above that would be necessary to remove the dams would be the biggest economic shot in the arm to hit the region since the dams were built between 1962 and 1975. When you were finished, you'd have all the economic activity that you do now as well as the recreational dollars (fishing and rafting) associated with a free-flowing river.

Would that Mr Postman's employer follow the lead of the Idaho Statesman in Boise and the Columbian in Vancouver and really look at both the science and the economics. As it is, they just use it to remind us of our differences on a slow newsday.

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